Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The 2018 French Open: Creating beautiful poster art through capturing the simple bounce of a tennis ball

Roland Garros and modern art have enjoyed a long, steady and tasteful relationship. It's a very French thing. In a sport where a player's instinct and spontaneous movement creates beautiful art out of work during every rally – especially on a terre battue canvas – the annual French Open poster is seen as a colorful and fascinating part of the Roland Garros experience. 

Each year since 1980, the grounds at Roland Garros in the 16th arrondissement of Paris have displayed bright and imaginative posters that truly embody the spirit and excitement of the French Open. After all, if tennis is seen as art – and why not? – then, its athletes are truly artists who have traded paint brushes for tennis rackets.

In an earlier era, Les Quatre Mousquetaires (Jacques Brugnon, Jean Borotra, Henri Cochet and René Lacoste) were prestigious French tennis players who dominated the sport in the second half of the 1920s and early '30s and were known for their dashing grace and athleticism. They became national icons in France – their success in winning the 1927 Davis Cup against the United States helped lead to the building of the Roland Garros venue at Porte d'Auteuil – and the French Open men's championship trophy was named the Coupe des Mousquetaires in honor of the quartet. 

Today, one need only think of World No. 1 Rafael Nadal, the undisputed king of clay, whose Picasso-like artistry as he glides across Court Philippe Chatrier – brushing his racquet against a tennis ball – is truly a bold and dynamic thing to admire. He's won 10 French Open singles titles, most of any athlete – male or female – which has endeared him to the French and tennis fans worldwide.

The quintessential Björn Borg's hair
as captured by Eduardo Arroyo in 1981.

Among the artists who have created French Open poster art since its inception are: Eduardo Arroyo, whose 1981 Pop Art image of Björn Borg's hair captured a quintessential quality of 1980s tennis; Joan Miró, one the most prominent influences on the development of both Surrealism and 20th-century art, who created the 1991 poster; documentary filmmaker and painter Jean-Michel Meurice, whose 1996 poster was inspired by the red clay and white lines of the Roland Garros courts; jazz drummer and composer Daniel Humair, who conveyed a musical rhythm to capture the pulse of the French Open in his 2004 poster; and Du Zhenjun, who in 2015 became the first Chinese artist selected to design a French Open poster. His training in traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy is reflected in his work.

Jazz drummer and composer Daniel Humair
conveyed a musical rhythm to capture
the pulse of the French Open in 2004.

For this year's French Open, Paris-born Fabienne Verdier was commissioned to create the poster for the 2018 tournament, which begins Sunday. Born in 1962, Verdier is the fourth woman selected to design the official Roland Garros poster, following in the footsteps of Jane Hammond (2003), Kate Shepherd (2007) and Nalini Malani (2010). She's also the first French artist, too. 

"For me, Roland Garros evokes those first warm days that herald the arrival of summer in Paris, when the intense light of May and June makes the ochre day sparkle," said Verdier, in an interview recently posted on French Open website rolandgarros.com. "As the sun races across the sky, the courts turn from amber to tobacco, from saffron to sepia, from ochre to red, from sienna to brown. During every rally, the balls collect this multicolored dust and, like comets, leave enchanting lines of energy in their wake."

In creating the 2018 French Open poster, Verdier chose to focus on the simple bounce of a tennis ball. In a split-second moment, she perfectly captures "that moment of truth in which the ball, after hitting the clay, sets off on one of many possible trajectories. The ball's movement gives off incredible energy."

Verdier describes her abstract impression this way: "I tried to portray the lightning speed of the player's movements. The energy that they transmit to the ball in a movement full of spontaneity, vitality, power, precision and slide. And I imagined one of those unexpected bounces that take the opponent by surprise and force them, in the following rally, to surpass themselves once again in order to get one step closer to victory in Paris."

To view the entire collection of French Open art posters: www.rolandgarros.com
Fabienne Verdier video courtesy of YouTube.com
French Open poster art courtesy of www.rolandgarros.com

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Encore: Who lives, who dies, who gets to tell your story?

Creative genius / Lin-Manuel Miranda
It's been said that works of art have long informed how people understand the past, and Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, which I saw for the second time in the past year last weekend in New York City, is no exception.

As the creative genius of the Broadway smash-hit Hamilton, Miranda changed the way that people considered one of the Founding Fathers and the era he lived in. In doing so, it put Miranda in lofty territory, alongside how Shakespeare transformed Richard III, and how the author Leon Uris romanticized the founding of Israel in his novel Exodus.

In revisiting an essay I wrote about Miranda in March 2016, here's some things worth noting:

In creating Hamilton, Miranda relied on the core elements of hip-hop and R & B-inspired music as well as jazz, pop and Tin Pan Alley – plus a racially-diverse cast – to make history as relatable as possible. Soon after its 2015 debut, Hamilton became a certifiable Broadway box office hit – it remains one of the toughest, most-sought after tickets on Broadway – and the musical became centered around a story arc that relates Hamilton's life story, from his orphaned upbringing in the West Indies to his death in a duel at the hands of Aaron Burr.

"This is a story about America then, told by America now," Miranda, a native New Yorker of Puerto Rican heritage, once told The Atlantic, "and we want to eliminate any distance between a contemporary audience and this story."

In a September 29, 2015 essay for The Atlantic, Edward Delman wrote, "Hamilton, then, has the potential to strongly influence the way Americans think about the early republic. For one thing ... it understands Thomas Jefferson to be a deeply flawed individual. It presents an American history in which women and people of color share the spotlight with the founding fathers. The primarily black and Hispanic cast reminds audiences that American history is not just the history of white people, and frequent allusions to slavery serve as constant reminders that just as the revolutionaries were fighting for their freedom, slaves were held in bondage.

"Perhaps, the most significant lesson the show might teach audiences, and one that has particular relevance today, is the outsized role immigrants have played in the nation's history. Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant – a fact that Miranda repeatedly emphasizes throughout the show – and the musical also prominently features the Marquis de Lafayette, a French nobleman who played a crucial role during the revolutionary war."

It's pretty amazing to think back to the fascinating process which Miranda translated the history of the unlikely rise and untimely fall of the first U.S. Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, onto the stage. He drew upon the Ron Chernow biography of Hamilton for focus and inspiration. Then, flash back to May 12, 2009, when Miranda first performed "The Hamilton Mixtape" before an audience that included President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House Evening of Poetry, Music and the Spoken Word, accompanied by pianist Alex Lacamoire.

In looking back at a February 2015 feature about Hamilton, Rebecca Meade of The New Yorker wrote: "It does not seem accidental that Hamilton was created during the tenure of the first African-American President. The musical presents the birth of the nation in an unfamiliar but necessary light: not solely as the world of élite white men but as the foundational story of all Americans. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington are all played by African-Americans. Miranda also gives prominent roles to women, including Hamilton's wife Eliza Schuyler, and sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler. When they are joined by a third sister, their zigzagging harmonies sound rather like those of Destiny's Child.

"Miranda portrays the Founding Fathers not as exalted statesmen but as orphaned sons, reckless revolutionaries, and sometimes petty rivals, living at a moment of extreme volatility, opportunity, and risk. The achievements and the dangers of America's current moment – under the Presidency of a fatherless son of an immigrant, born in the country's island margins – are never far from view."

The Grammy Award-winning original cast recording, produced by The Roots' Questlove and Black Thought – has been a welcome companion of mine on my car stereo for several years – and I never really tire of its songs.

"I don't know how many really good ideas you get in a lifetime," Miranda once told The Hollywood Reporter, "but the idea of telling Hamilton as a hip-hop story was definitely one because you get to do everything: love and death and a war and duels and revenge and affairs and sex scandals."

One thing remains certain: Thanks to Miranda's genius, the Tony Award-winning Hamilton continues to have a positive influence in altering our perception of American history, and the role in which artists are helping shape historical narrative. And, Miranda knows that he can't stop being who he is just because more people are looking at him.

Photo credits: Lin-Manuel Miranda's Twitter feed and Google Images. Video/audio credit: YouTube.com.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

RBG: Hero. Icon. Dissenter.

At the age of 85, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a legal legend, a feminist hero, a notorious dissenter. She's developed a breathtaking legal legacy while becoming – unexpectedly – a pop culture icon. We know her accomplishments, but we've haven't heard her story. Until now.

"I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks."

With last week's release of the empowering RBG, a revelatory documentary biography that explores the esteemed Justice Ginsburg's truly remarkable life and career, from directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen and co-produced by Storyville Films and CNN Films, we are reminded of her tireless fight for women and equality – of how law can be used for social change.

"People ask me: 'When will there be enough women on the court?' And my answer is 'When there are nine.'"

In RBG, we see up close how Justice Ginsburg balances her personal and professional life. We learn of her energy, her focus, her drive – even her sense of humor. Her confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee – she was nominated by President Bill Clinton – is an anchor and central narrative thread for the 97-minute film in which we see glimpses of both her personal and professional sides.

"I became a lawyer when women were not wanted by the legal profession."

Justice Ginsburg's professional energy is shown time and again throughout the film, of which I saw a sneak preview in a northwest Washington, D.C., theater five days before its release date in selected cities. Inside the Supreme Court Building, we see Justice Ginsburg's personal office decorated in colorful modern art. There are lots of family photographs of her and her late husband, Marty – the love of her life – as well as of her children and of her grandchildren. We see her many judicial robes and her collection of "dissent" collars. It is a wide-ranging space. We also learn about the collegiality Justice Ginsburg shares among the other eight Supreme Court Justices, regardless of their liberal or conservative leanings. For all of their differences, she was actually best of friends with the late conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.

"Men and women are persons of equal dignity and they should count equally. The point is that the discriminatory line almost inevitably hurts women."

In RBG, we learn about Justice Ginsburg's intellectual curiosity. Born in the 1930s, she was the first in her family to go to college, and was one of nine women among a Harvard Law School class of more than 500. We understand the important place she holds in judicial history in fighting for gender equality. As a young litigator, she took six gender discrimination cases to the Supreme Court – and won five of them.

"I did see myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in these days because the judges didn't think sex discrimination existed."

Then, on August 10, 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the second female to sit on the nation's highest court. Talk about a legacy! She is a center of power on and off the court. Outside of the Supreme Court, we witness Justice Ginsburg's love of opera and the arts – and talking to groups of young school students – as something that rejuvenates her. We also see up close her regular gym workouts, doing planks and push-ups, that show how she's proud of keeping herself in shape to do the job of Supreme Court Justice.

One critic labeled RBG a love story, a history lesson, a comedy, a profile in courage. The Washington Post wrote: "She's created a whole new way for the public to look at a Supreme Court Justice."

"I surely wouldn't be in this room today without the determined efforts of men and women who kept dreams alive."

RBG is an excellent, inspiring and important film that – hopefully – will inspire generations of women to pursue law and justice. It's also an important historical document. We are reminded of Justice Ginsburg's commitment to creating a more equitable society for all people.

After all, you can't spell "truth" without Ruth.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Telling a story through the Presidents who shaped history

Barack Obama
Recently, while entertaining out of state friends, we happened one evening to visit the nation's only complete collection of presidential portraits outside of the White House at the Smithsonian Institute's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The gallery of Presidential Portraits is a timeless exhibition that lies at the heart of the National Portrait Gallery's core mission: telling the American story through the individuals who shaped it.

From George Washington to Barack Obama, presidential portraits have always attracted our interest. Once upon a time – before newspapers, magazines and television – a painted portrait or a sculpted image was the only means that most of us knew of our Presidents. And, as I've learned, throughout much of the 19th century, there was a lively debate over which portrait of George Washington most accurately conveyed his proper image.

Inside the gallery of Presidential Portraits, there are a variety of presidential likenesses, including oil on canvas, marble head busts, engravings – and, there's the Chuck Close portrait of Bill Clinton that is truly amazing and has to be seen. As I took note while walking through the gallery and viewing the presidential portraiture in order of their presidency, from Washington to Obama, I couldn't help but notice that some portraits were more sophisticated and interesting than others. Let's face it – I think Teddy Roosevelt is just a bit more striking a figure than Millard Fillmore. Same goes for JFK compared to Calvin Coolidge. No offense, some presidents are just more interesting than others.

Bill Clinton
As I drew closer to the newest presidential portrait – of Barack Obama – I noticed an orderly queue line and soon I joined it so that I could take a few candid photographs. The portrait of the 44th President by artist Kehinde Wiley was unveiled on February 12 at the National Portrait Gallery and it's become the center of attention – along with the new portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama – inside the entire National Portrait Gallery.

"Historically, portraiture has always been about saying yes to things that we want to celebrate, but I think also the commissioned portrait has often times been about a society saying, 'Who are the people we collectively want to honor?' and particularly with the presidential portrait, this is the highest aspect of that tradition," said Wiley, during a recent interview with Time. "It's been – I can't tell you – an extraordinary honor to be able to participate in that."

The portrait of Obama makes quite a statement. It's anything but drab. The former president is shown wearing a black suit with an open-collared shirt. He's sitting on a wooden chair. And, he's surrounded by flowers and green foliage. The flowers, I learned, include: blue lilies, from his father's home in Kenya; jasmine from Obama's home state of Hawaii; and chrysanthemums, the official flower of Chicago, the former president's hometown.

John F. Kennedy
At the unveiling of his portrait, Obama said, "What I was always struck by whenever I saw (Wiley's) portraits was the degree to which they challenged our conventional views of power and privilege."

Wiley stated, "The ability to be the first African-American painter to paint the first African-American president of the United States is absolutely overwhelming. It doesn't get any better than that."

After seeing the Obama portrait, Brian T. Allen wrote in The National Review, "Obama looks directly at us, as if he reads our minds and challenges our assumptions. It's jarring but effective. He's formal and familiar, both tense and loose. He leans toward the viewer. It's not a position comfortably sustained. It's not repose. It suggests imminent action. For Obama, this probably means he's about to tell us, 'That's not who we are,' instructing us to question some near-universally held sentiment. Wiley builds the figure with straight lines and diagonals. His suit is dark. Aside from his wedding ring, he's unornamented. Obama's open collar softens the effect. It's his trademark look but seems like a uniform. He's a role model, so it works."

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

2018 Fed Cup final will match Team USA, Czech Republic

Team USA  / Celebrating its victory over France.
(L-R) Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens,
CoCo Vandeweghe, Bethanie Mattek-Sands,
captain Kathy Rinaldi.

It seems only fitting that the two most successful – and dominant – teams in the history of the Fed Cup competition, the United States and the Czech Republic, will decide this year's championship later this year.

The Czech Republic, which has won five the past seven Fed Cup titles, will host defending champion United States on November 10-11, likely in Prague. The Americans have captured 18 championships – most in Fed Cup history – and are looking to add to their impressive trophy collection. (The Fed Cup is the women's equivalent to the men's Davis Cup.)

Over the weekend, the United States advanced to its second consecutive Fed Cup final with a 3-2 victory over France in Aix-en-Provence by winning three of four singles rubbers on the red clay inside Arena du Pays d'Aix. World No. 9 Sloane Stephens, who went 2-0 against the French, was solid in her 6-2, 6-0 win over No. 20 Kiki Mladenovic on Sunday. It put the Americans ahead 2-1, needing just one rubber to advance. Then, No. 13 Madison Keys substituted for No. 16 CoCo Vandeweghe and clinched the tie for Team USA with a 7-6 (4), 6-4 win over No. 122 Pauline Parmentier.

"I think all the credit goes to the players," said U.S. team captain Kathy Rinaldi, who took over Team USA in 2017 and is undefeated in five Fed Cup ties. "They played some great tennis. We had some great matches and I think that really stands out."

After her tie-clinching win, Keys said that she was "really happy to get the win. Obviously, Sloane playing some great matches and getting that final win is really, really special."

Team USA has reached back-to-back Fed Cup finals for the first time since finishing runner-up in 2009-10 and last won consecutive Fed Cup titles in 1999-2000.

Meanwhile, the 10-time Fed Cup champion Czech Republic moved into the final round for the sixth time in the last eight years with an impressive 4-1 road victory over Germany in Stuttgart. "It was a very tough tie," Czech Republic team captain Petr Pala said after his team's triumph. "It was an outstanding performance from each of the (singles) winners. ... The tennis was unbelievable."

Pala's team is anchored soundly by World No. 10 Petra Kvitova and No. 6 Karolina Pliskova at singles. Against Germany, Kvitova beat both No. 11 Julia Goerges and No. 12 Angelique Kerber without dropping a set for her 29th and 30th Fed Cup rubber wins. Pliskova is 13-4 in her Fed Cup singles career. The Czech Republic doubles team with be very formidable with Barbora Strycova and Katerina Siniakova paired together. Both are ranked in the Top 20 in the world.

"They've shown the last five years they are the best," German team captain Jens Gerlach said of the Czech Republic team after Sunday's tie.

During his weekly The Tennis Podcast, co-host David Law of BBC5 Live gave props to Kvitova. "Petra Kvitova was in just the most devastating form," he said. "She absolutely thrashed Julia Goerges and Angelique Kerber in Stuttgart. I think it will be a very interesting final at the end of the year."

Like the Czech Republic, Team USA has an abundance of talent to draw upon. "I've always said that's the toughest part about being a captain is looking at the depth and looking at all of the players," said Rinaldi. "Hopefully, everybody is available and we're looking forward to it." Whether the Williams sisters – No. 8 Venus and former No. 1 Serena – will be a part of Team USA for the Fed Cup final remains to be decided. While either would be a welcome addition to an already elite lineup, the current quartet of players that beat France in the semifinals – Stephens, Keys, Vandeweghe and former No. 1 doubles player Bethanie Mattek-Sands – are all great competitors who want to win.

While there's a lot of time between now and the November final to finalize her team, Rinaldi looks forward to the challenge of facing the Czech Republic. The U.S. owns a 10-2 career win-loss record against the Czech Republic in all Fed Cup meetings. "We know going into the final is going to be tough," she said. "Czech Republic has tremendous depth as well. They have had a lot of success, so it should be very interesting."

Cover photo: U.S. Fed Cup team by Ashley Marshall/USTA.
A version of this blog post first appeared in Tennis TourTalk (www.tennis-tourtalk.com).

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

On film: Borg vs. McEnroe, tightly strung rivalry

For 1 hour and 37 minutes on a recent Sunday morning, I felt like I had gone back in time to the summer of 1980 and Sweden's Björn Borg was the top tennis player in the world, in pursuit of a record-breaking fifth Wimbledon gentlemen's singles championship. 

From 1974 to 1981, Borg dominated tennis, both on and off the court. He became the first male player in the Open Era to win 11 Grand Slam singles titles. He possessed a powerful forehand, perfected the two-fisted backhand, and was rigorously disciplined to a fault. On the other side of the net from the 24-year-old Borg was none other than John McEnroe, three years Borg's junior: young, American, talented, abrasive. When you think of Borg vs. McEnroe, you think of tennis, former rivals, best enemies. They were the antithesis of each other.

During a screening at the Cinema Club in Washington, D.C. on March 25, I watched Borg vs. McEnroe, which premiered in limited release in the U.S. last Friday. (It played last fall on the film festival circuit in Europe.) It is directed by Danish filmmaker Janus Metz with the screenplay provided by Swedish writer and director Ronnie Sandahl. Sverrir Gudnason is a dead ringer for Borg while Shia LaBeouf portrays McEnroe.

Borg vs. McEnroe focuses on Borg's rise to prominence, starting from his youth through the 1980 Wimbledon Championships. We learn how Borg's coach, Lennart Bergelin (played brilliantly by Stellan Skarsgård), helps him to channel his competitive – obsessive – behavior off the court so that he can focus on his impulsive game on the court. Meanwhile, we also learn of McEnroe's complete obsession with Borg prior to their big Centre Court championship match.

"Essentially, the movie implies that, despite appearances to the contrary, Borg and McEnroe were inwardly very similar – and different mainly in their behavior. What the drama suggests is that the pressure to maintain appearances, to keep his furies under control and channeled, exacted a very high emotional price on Borg," writes critic Richard Brody in The New Yorker.

"I'm just like everybody else ... I'm not a machine," says Borg, during a testy exchange with a reporter on the eve of his showdown with McEnroe.

Overall, I found Borg vs. McEnroe enjoyable. The fourth set, 34-point tie-break, during which McEnroe saved five match points, takes up nearly the final third of the film. It is at times very riveting and played to its full dramatic effect. The points are fast and so are the edits. While the film focuses on the "Fire and Ice" rivalry between the two future Hall of Fame players, I feel I learned a lot more about the complexity of Borg's character – think tightly strung perfectionist – than I did of McEnroe. However, seeing McEnroe's bad on-court behavior recreated – yelling at both the chair umpire and at pigeons, too – brought back memories for which he's forever remembered. "You cannot be serious!"

Borg vs. McEnroe is presented in both English and Swedish with subtitles. I highly recommend this film.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

An understanding of racial justice in the shadow of statues

In the Shadow of Statues, which
was published March 20, is
on the New York Times
Bestseller List.
"These statues are not just stone and metal. They were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge." 

– Mitch Landrieu, from In the Shadow of Statues

New Orleans is one of the great multicultural cities in the world. It is also a racially divided city that has dealt with its fair share of poverty and urban violence. In spite of all of its troubles, the Big Easy remains a beloved cultural treasure to everyone who visits thanks to its rich tradition of funky jazz music and the beauty and grace of its amazing food.

Enter Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans since 2010, who has been an important catalyst in helping his city rebuild from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. As the son of a former state legislator and mayor of New Orleans – who was a huge force in the integration of that city in the 1960s and 1970s – and the brother of a former U.S. senator from Louisiana, Landrieu grew up with a progressive education in the racially divided Crescent City among America's lingering Confederate monuments.

At a time when the issue of racism has become resurgent "with seemingly tacit approval from the highest levels of government and when too many Americans have a misplaced nostalgia for a time and place that never existed," Landrieu has written In the Shadow of Statues – a book that's a must read.

In the Shadow of Statues is equal parts memoir, history, and a "prescription for finally confronting America's most painful legacy." As a white southerner confronting his city's past history, Landrieu contributes a very strong voice to our national conversation about race in America today by taking on many difficult issues related to it, including slavery and inequality.

In praising In the Shadow of Statues, Walter Isaacson, author of Leonardo da Vinci and Steve Jobs, writes: "With a balance of humility and conviction, he recounts his path to a more profound understanding of racial justice and explains how this journey led him to remove the Confederate monuments in New Orleans. It's an important book for everyone in America to read, because it shows how intellectual honesty can lead to moral clarity."

Mitch Landrieu at Politics & Prose Bookstore
in Washington, D.C. last week.
Last week, my wife and I attended a standing room-only book event at Politics & Prose Bookstore in northwest Washington, D.C., featuring a conversation between Landrieu and Jeffrey Goldberg, editor in chief of The Atlantic, before a thoughtful and engaging audience, that was followed by a 30-minute Q & A period and a book signing.

"There's a difference between remembering and revering history," said Landrieu, who addressed the people of New Orleans in May 2017 about his decision to take down and remove four Confederate monuments, including the statue of the famous southern Confederate general Robert E. Lee. The affected statues represent a mere four-year period of U.S. history, from 1861-65, but a searing one, too. While Landrieu said that the decision to remove the monuments was a difficult one, it was a right one, too. It was about eradicating history.

"We were on the wrong side of history," Landrieu told the Politics & Prose audience very matter-of-factly. "These statues were erected to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge. For decades, these statues have cast a long shadow on society, particularly African-Americans."

Lee Circle before the Confederate monument
of Robert E. Lee was removed in 2017.
Landrieu says In the Shadow of Statues is an invitation to stand and sit in other people's shoes. He recalled for his Politics & Prose audience a conversation he once shared with his dear friend, the famous jazz musician and educator – and New Orleans native son – Wynton Marsalis, who helped him see the truth about the city's exclusionary attitudes. "'Hey, man,'" Landrieu recalled the trumpeter saying to him. "'You should take the statue of Robert E. Lee down. Do you know how it got there and who put it up?'"

In the book, Landrieu expands on his conversation with Marsalis.

"I don't like the fact that Lee Circle is named Lee Circle."

"Why is that?"

"Let me help you see it through my eyes. Who is he? What does he represent? And in that most prominent space in the city of New Orleans, does that space reflect who we are, who we want to be, or who we are?"

Suddenly, Landrieu was listening.

Later in their conversation, according to the mayor, Marsalis added, "'Did you know Louis Armstrong left the city and never came back because of that statue? He did not even want to be buried in his hometown. You ever think about what Robert E. Lee means to someone black?'"

Landrieu emphasized that there's a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it. "I think there are a lot of people who are struggling with the notion that the South fought for a cause that was reviled," he said. When you make sense of it, monuments are usually reserved for winners not losers. The Confederate monuments celebrated the losing side of the Civil War.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu
As Landrieu remarked back during his May 2017 speech, "For America and New Orleans, it has been a long, winding road, marked by great tragedy and great triumph. But we cannot be afraid of our truth."

And, as Landrieu writes, "Here is the essential truth: We are better together than we are apart.

"Indivisibility is our essence."

Near the end of his conversation at Politics & Prose, Landrieu said, "If we are going to move forward as a country, we must confront the issue of race head on. Our diversity is what makes this country great.

"We need to understand our history. We need to tell the whole story."

Photo credits: Book cover courtesy of Amazon.com. Politics & Prose audience courtesy of @PoliticsProse Twitter. Robert E. Lee statue courtesy of New Orleans Advocate. Mitch Landrieu courtesy of Cheryl Gerber.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Hearing "I'll Still Love You" sung in a very unusual way

Elvis Costello wrote "I'll Still Love You" in 10 minutes.

Johnny Cash: Forever Words, an upcoming compilation of various all-star artists performing songs based upon the unrecorded poetry, lyrics and letters of the late Johnny Cash that's due out April 6, includes a lovely and elaborately orchestrated piano ballad featuring Cash's poem, "I'll Still Love You," performed by Elvis Costello. 

More than a dozen different country, blues, gospel, rock and R&B artists, including Willie Nelson, Roseanne Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Alison Krauss, T Bone Burnett, and the late Chris Cornell from Soundgarden, contributed to Johnny Cash: Forever Words, which was produced by Cash's son, John Carter Cash. Thanks to its recent sneak preview, Costello's composition is already drawing lots of praise from music critics for its non-Johnny Cash-like approach.

Although Cash (who died in 2003) was known throughout much of his legendary career as a country artist, Costello's composition for Johnny Cash: Forever Words shouldn't necessarily be labeled a country song despite the songsmith's appreciation toward country music. Rather, think of it as a mature pop tune about extending love into the afterlife which "brings to mind the likes of Harry Nilsson and Paul McCartney with, thanks to its jazz chording and crooner inflections, a touch of Frank Sinatra," writes Spin music critic Winston Cook-Wilson. 

Another critic suggests that Costello's contribution is "a breathtaking ballad with dramatic strings and a gorgeous sense of melody, sung with a vulnerability that suits the lyrics as Cash poetically reflects on mortality."

"I'll Still Love You" reminds me very much of Costello's original song "You Shouldn't Look At Me This Way" from last year, which he penned for the motion picture Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool.

In a video interview that accompanied the release of "I'll Still Love You," Costello muses about how everything fell into place. "The folio of lyrics was before me on the kitchen table, and there was one lyric that was thought to be one that might suit me," he recalls. "And then I was glancing through the folio and that particular lyric was on the page, and the next thing I could hear it in a very unusual way."

As Costello explains, he didn't hear Cash's musical sensibility in the poem. Instead, he says, "I knew right away it wasn't meant to be played. ... You could hear his musical voice on many of the lyrics on the page but not this one; not me anyway. I heard something completely different."

In this case, according to Costello, he went downstairs to his upright piano and "pretty much wrote what you hear in 10 minutes," in putting the Man in Black's poem to music.

One of these mornings
I'm going rise up flying
One of these mornings
I'll sail away

Beyond the blue
I've gotta promise
There's a world ahead
I want you to know that when I come
I'll still love you

I won't be a stranger
When I get to heaven
'Cause you gave me heaven
Right here on earth
If I get rewarded
With an ancient heart of gold
and for what it's worth
I'll still love you

One of these mornings
When my trouble's over
One of these mornings
When all my suffering is through
I'll go out singing
It'll be a day to sing about
And I'll guarantee for eternity
I'll still love you
I'll still love you

I'll still love you
I'll still love you.

Screenshot photograph of Elvis Costello and "I'll Still Love You" video courtesy of YouTube.com.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The story of ordinary women doing extraordinary things

Hidden Figures:
In conversation with the Library of Congress.

Author Margot Lee Shetterly might not be a household name, but through her book, Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race, and the Academy Award-winning film Hidden Figures that was inspired by it, we've learned about a group of NASA black female professional mathematicians – "human computers" – who helped propel the United States to victory in the space race. Who knew?

"Why haven't I heard this story before?" is a familiar question the Hampton, Va. native, University of Virginia graduate Shetterly hears, more than a year and half after her book was published and turned into a big screen biographical drama starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe. Both the book (published by William Morrow/HarperCollins) and the film (distributed by 20th Century Fox) highlight the remarkable stories of pioneering black women mathematicians at NASA whose calculations fueled great achievements for the U.S. space program as it was competing for supremacy against Russia during the Cold War. These pioneers included: Katherine Goble Johnson, a mathematician who calculated flight trajectories for Project Mercury; Dorothy Vaughan, a NASA supervisor; and Mary Jackson, a NASA engineer.

These women weren't household names like NASA astronauts John Glenn and Alan Shepard. Yet, they accomplished great things and led extraordinary lives in eras of limited opportunity for women. They broke barriers before gender, race, science and politics became a rallying cry for females.

Hidden Figures author Margot Lee Shetterly.
Through Shetterly's storytelling, we learn there are scores of other black women – hidden figures – who worked for decades in anonymity as professional mathematicians, scientists and engineers. They overcame gender and racial hardships, and through their perseverance, they were all bright lights.

"Of course, the factors making their narrative so compelling to modern audiences are the same that conspired to keep the story under wraps for so long: racial segregation, gender bias and the arcane, sensitive nature of the work being done at NASA kept these women in the national blindspot," Shetterly wrote in the March/April issue of the Library of Congress Magazine. 

Last week, Shetterly and American film producer Donna Gigliotti, who developed Hidden Figures into an Academy Award-winning movie, appeared at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. as part of the Library's Women's History Month, in an hour-long forum, "Hidden Figures: Courage, Command, and Human Computers." As both spoke in conversation with Marie Arana, the Literary Advisor of the Library of Congress, black and white images of Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson were projected onto the stage celebrating these real-life hidden figures.

Hidden Figures producer Donna Gigliotti
"The truth is Margot was really onto something with her book that I could feel, that I knew it," said Gigliotti. "It was about American women not getting their due, African-American women not getting their due. It was about space, a confluence of things. I never doubted it wouldn't be successful."

Asked to describe how she researched Hidden Figures, Shetterly said, "The chain of knowledge was so interesting. One fact led to another. The first interview was with Katherine Johnson. She mentioned a number of people in that interview, such as Dorothy Vaughan. She mentioned Mary Jackson, who I did know because she worked with my father in the early part of his career.

"Every time I got a clue, I would just have to go off kind of like an archeologist and excavate the information. The information was really there, but it had never been collated into one place."

Shetterly said that the National Archives and the NASA History Office were particularly useful in her research as well as the interviews she conducted with principal hidden figures, such as Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson, and their children.

"There was so much information," said Shetterly. "Spending so much time with the math and the science and the engineering and with the reports was useful and it was like being in a time machine. I went back to 1943. Sometimes, it was about airplanes – because they were working with airplanes before space ships – other times it was about civil rights legislation that opened up public schools and public accommodations. Sometimes, it was about breakthroughs made by women during World War II. I got an incredible history lesson in doing this research. These people came back to life."

According to Shetterly, wrestling the information into a narrative was the hardest thing for her to accomplish. "It was important that the people led the story. It was always a human story and not just historical facts," she said.

Donna Gigliotti and Margot Lee Shetterly.
From listening to Shetterly and Gigliotti, I learned why storytelling matters and why, through books and films like Hidden Figures, it has the power to transform how each of us sees both our world and ourselves.

"When writers, historians and storytellers strive to present a more expansive – and truer – view of our shared past," said Shetterly, "we open the door to a more inclusive and equitable vision of our shared future."

Photos: All photos by Michael Dickens, © 2018.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Just 16, but Amanda Anisimova is on top of the world

Amanda Anisimova / On top of the tennis world.

Sixteen-year-old American tennis player Amanda Anisimova had not won a tour-level match until she arrived to play in the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells last week. Now, she's on top of the tennis world. Given a wild card entry into this annual, late winter WTA Premier event in the scenic California desert, Anisimova in just a few days has been nothing short of phenomenal – and she's fearless, too.

Whether she's hitting ripping forehands or two-fisted backhands – both with equal determination and success – the 149th-ranked Anisimova has been impressive. She's not dropped a set in winning her first three matches while tearing through the 96-player singles draw round by round.

During Sunday's Stadium One opener, Anisimova defeated two-time Wimbledon champion and No. 9 seed Petra Kvitova, 6-2, 6-4, to advance to the fourth round. The loss ended Kvitova's 14-match winning streak.

As Anisimova, the reigning U.S. Open junior champion, zeroed in on her latest victory – two days earlier, she advanced with an impressive win over No. 23 sed Anastasia Pavyuchenkova – it prompted Tennis Channel commentator Brett Haber to quip, "She's too young to be nervous."

Indeed, playing composed and focused well beyond her years, Anisimova placed 63 percent of her first serves in play and won 70 percent (23 of 33) of her first-serve points while losing just 19 points on her serve against Kvitova. She broke her opponent five times, outpointed Kvitova 59-46, and won on her first match-point opportunity. She played smart and made good shot selections.

"I'm shaking right now. This is the biggest stage I've every played on against the strongest person I've ever played in a tournament," said Anisimova after beating Kvitova in just 69 minutes. "It's just crazy."

Just who is Anisimova? Well, she's the daughter of Russian parents who immigrated to the United States. The 5-foot-11 Anisimova was born in 2001 in Freehold, New Jersey, before moving to Aventura, Florida, where she learned to play tennis at the very young age of two. While she speaks Russian, she's very much American and has been home schooled so she can focus on playing tennis. Last year, at age 15, she earned a wild card entry into the main draw of the French Open.

"This girl is going to be good. She has the look and poise – the attitude – to be a great player," said Tennis Channel analyst and Hall of Fame great Martina Navratilova, in describing Anisimova immediately after she beat Kvitova.

Looking back on her biggest win as a professional, in defeating Kvitiova, Anisimova said: "She's the best player I have ever played, and it was the biggest court I have ever played on. So it was definitely nerve-racking kind of, but I was enjoying it so much out there. And I was playing my best. It was a good day."

Front and center, Anisimova is part of a talented group of young American women – which includes Caroline Dolehide and Danielle Collins, each who also received a wild card entry into the Indian Wells main draw – who are starting to gain notice by the tennis media and appreciated by tennis fans.

Next, Anisimova will face her third straight seeded player – and second consecutive top 10 player – when she plays No. 5 seed Karolina Pliskova, a former World No. 1, in the round of 16 on Tuesday afternoon. While she may not be favored to win, I wouldn't bet against her.

• A postscript: Pliskova defeated Anisimova, 6-1, 7-6 (2). Although she looked a bit nervous and played tentative at times in losing to the more experienced Pliskova, Anisimova enjoyed a great week of tennis at Indian Wells – and she's definitely hit the big time. Plus, she moves up 19 spots to No. 130 on the live WTA world rankings.

A version of this story originally appeared in Tennis-TourTalk.com.
Photo: Courtesy of WTA.com. Video: Courtesy of WTA/YouTube.com.